IF SHE'D gone Hollywood, Shirley Clarke says, she might have been the female Stanley Kubrick. "He's from New York, his father had money, and then he heard the call. Ingo Premminger, the agent, once discussed a Hollywood career with me, too, but then he advised me not to do it. 'You won't be happy,' Ingo said, 'because you always want your own way.' If I had been a man, of course, that would not have been a problem."
Clarke, a patrician lady in a hat whose grandfather invented the Phillips-head screw, did pretty well by staying home in New York. She became a vanguard filmmaker with a range that encompassed the "cool world" of Harlem gangs, an in-depth portrait of a notorious hustler, the videotaping of her own arrest with the underground star Viva, and a "best documentary" Oscar for "Love Letter to the World," her film study of Robert Frost.
Sometimes she was even more in the vanguard than she realized.
From 1965 to 1975, she lived in New York's hip Chelsea Hotel, the postbeat meeting place and Andy Warhol film set, where Arthur C. Clarke could often be found playing with laser beams on the roof. One day Shirely Clarke, related only by roof, was up there too, experimenting with equipment for a new medium called "videotape," when Alan Watts dropped by. The shaggy exponent-translator of Zen Buddhism was very impressed.
"'Oh, video! That's for me. I always knew video was my medium!' Alan said as soon as he saw all my equipment, with three monitors set up and wires all over the place," Clarke recalled. "Alan, you know, never stopped talking for a minute. I saw that it was a wonderful opportunity to get him on tape..
"I turned the camera and he just sat there, perfectly silent. I realized this must be some deep lesson of Zen, and so nobody said a word. After a half hour the tape ran out, and I said 'thank you Alan, we're finished.' He jumped up and looked at me. 'What? What? You didn't tell me to begin! I was waiting for you to tell me to start!'"
Watts was furious, Clarke says. He believed he missed a great opportunity. But the tape did air. "When cable TV first came to New York, they ran out of programs," Clarke said. "They asked me if I had anything, and I said sure, and gave them the tape of Alan Watts not saying anything. They only ran it once, though."
A current project is called "Snow Angels," on which she has been working for some time with her friend Shelly Winters. A major studio was interested, but suggested a change. "They wanted the whores to be young and pretty, and we didn't," Clarke said. "Snow Angels" is now going ahead as an independent production, budgeted at $1.5 million.
Clarke's first camera was a wedding present--a little Bolen 16mm. Now she has cast her lot with digital computerized image making, with which she hopes to make an electronic musical comedy feature for about $1 million.
"This way you can stretch faces, make people large or small, move them around the frame," she explained. "If a character is talking about disintegrating, they can disintegrate in front of your eyes if you want them to.. It's like magic.
Clarke clearly has never been intimidated by technology. "My family once made samovars for the czar," she says. "We've always been mechanically inclined." She believes there aren't many women directors "because the director works mostly with groups of men--stagehands, sound men, cameramen. It's the same reason you don't have women foremen on construction sites. Men are running the banks, men are running the studios. Women are coming along--they used to be given film editors' jobs, because that was considered 'safe.' Now the women film editors are the best.."
Shirley Clarke lives in California and teaches at UCLA, but it's still a long way from Hollywood.
"I feel sorry for Hollywood, really," she said, "trying to put out 100 movies a year. But I think we're in for a quantum leap. Everything from economics to what kind of people are running the studio, to hopefully everybody getting off cocaine. First the economic regrouping, then the artistic. The '70s were a down period. The 1980s ought to be wonderful again."